15 YEARS AGO TODAY, I SAID…

posted by Mark Madden -

…take the goalie.

It turned out to be good advice.

Here is my Post-Gazette column from June 21, 2003. It urged the Penguins to trade up to get the NHL draft’s first pick overall, then select goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins did just as I suggested: They sent the third choice overall, a second-round pick and forward Mikael Samuelsson to Florida for the first pick overall and a third-round choice.

Welcome to Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury. Drafting Fleury is where it all started.

Madden: Penguins should take the goalie

Saturday, June 21, 2003

My advice to the Penguins for the first round of the NHL draft today is simple: Take the goalie.

Trade up if necessary. If it takes sending injury-riddled forward Martin Straka and the third pick to Florida for the first pick, do it. But take the goalie. Take Marc-Andre Fleury, the phenom from Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Do whatever is needed, but take the goalie.

A hockey axiom states that taking a goaltender in the first round (especially early in the first round) is too much of a gamble. The Penguins proved that when they selected Craig Hillier in the first round in 1996. Hillier, the 23rd pick overall, never stopped a puck at the NHL level.

But if Hillier was a bust, so were defenseman Stefan Bergkvist, the Penguins' first-round choice in 1993; center Chris Wells, the team's first-round choice in 1994; winger Robert Dome (1997), and, so far, center Milan Kraft, the first-round pick in '98.

The first round hasn't been good to the Penguins the past 10 years. But it hasn't been because they've taken too many goalies.

The idea that it's too risky to take a goalie in the first round is a myth. Most general managers didn't play goal, so they aren't as comfortable evaluating the position, which is definitely the most difficult to scout. A lot of goalies develop late, and this isn't the era of patience of pro sports.

Most GMs simply go with what they know, and they don't know goalies. So they just don't draft goaltenders in the first round.

Grant Fuhr, Tom Barrasso, Olaf Kolzig, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Jean-Sebastien Giguere were first-round selections. So were a bunch of bad goalies, but stars and bums get drafted at every position in the first round.

Rick DiPietro, the only goaltender picked No. 1 overall since the draft assumed its current format in 1969, hasn't set the league on fire since the New York Islanders grabbed him in 2000. But DiPietro is only 21 and has yet to be given a true shot at being the Islanders' top netminder. Atlanta took Finnish goalie Kari Lehtonen second overall last year, and he has yet to play in the NHL.

But chances are DiPietro ultimately will excel. Same with Lehtonen. They are goaltenders of pedigree. So is Fleury.

There's no disputing one thing: In today's over-expanded NHL, goaltending is, by far, the most important element. Goaltending is a low-budget team's shortcut to making the playoffs consistently.

The Buffalo Sabres made the playoffs eight out of their nine seasons with Dominik Hasek, playing in a final and a semifinal. In the two years since Hasek left, the Sabres have not made the postseason.

Unless the Penguins believe Johan Hedberg or Sebastien Caron can be a franchise goalie, then they can't afford not to draft Fleury.

Eric Staal, Nikolai Zherdev or Dustin Brown might score a lot of goals in the NHL. Ryan Suter could turn out to be a rugged cornerstone on defense. But none of those players has the potential to be the primary reason the Penguins consistently make the playoffs.

Fleury does.

There are no guarantees, but Fleury has that potential. There are no guarantees with position players, either. To reiterate, see Bergkvist, Wells, Dome, Kraft.

Under the NHL's current financial structure -- which might change (after a lengthy labor dispute) via the 2004 collective-bargaining negotiations -- and given the Penguins' ongoing financial plight, the Penguins are not going to rebuild into a playoff team via conventional means.

Say the Penguins develop a whole host of bright young stars. It would only help temporarily, because the Penguins can afford to keep only one star at most.

If you can have only one star, he should be a goalie. If you want to make the playoffs, that is.

Fleury is a cookie-cutter, Quebec-bred butterfly goaltender, and a look around the NHL suggests there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I could go through his strengths, but it's easier to say he doesn't have any significant weaknesses.

Fleury will not be ready to play in the NHL this coming season. Despite their seemingly shaky future in Pittsburgh, the Penguins still have to think long term. And anyway, Staal, Zherdev, Brown or Suter certainly won't enable to Penguins to challenge for a Stanley Cup overnight.

But, someday -- and that day might not be too far off -- Fleury could enable the Penguins to get in the playoffs consistently. Besides a new arena, a yearly dose of playoff money might be the most crucial element when it comes to the Penguins' future health.

So take the goalie.

Photo courtesy of GettyImages

Image Courtesy of Getty Images

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